Growing up in northern West Virginia in the 1970s, I remember seeing a lot of big white plastic candy canes sticking out of the ground, marking the natural gas pipelines that ran just below the surface. You’d encounter them along streams and fence lines and the backcountry roads that always made me carsick. What I didn’t realize as a kid was how much of my family history was intertwined with those hidden gas lines.
My great-great-grandfather, William Dodd, helped lay some of the first pipe across the state, working for a subsidiary of Standard Oil at a time when John D. Rockefeller craved alternatives to oil (not for any environmental reason, but because even back then he was worried we would run out). William’s son was an administrator for Hope Gas, and his grandson (my grandfather) was a supervisor at a company extraction plant on the Ohio River. Then my dad spent his career as a corporate executive for Hope’s successor, Consolidated Natural Gas, until it was gobbled up by Dominion Resources.
That time line of mergers and name changes—from Hope to Dominion—serves as a rather succinct summary of the role of natural gas in the U.S. economy over the past couple of centuries. First used commercially in 1821 to light lamps in Fredonia, New York—almost four decades before an oil well was drilled in nearby Pennsylvania—gas has nevertheless remained oil’s “invisible twin,” as David Waples put it in his 2005 book, The Natural Gas Industry in Appalachia. Gas was often seen as an unwanted by-product, frequently burned off because coal was cheaper and oil more versatile.
Fracking, as Wall Street Journal energy reporter Russell Gold writes in The Boom, has changed all that, fundamentally altering both the U.S. economy and the nature of communities across the country. That’s because it takes place literally in our backyards. Much of the most recent wave of natural gas drilling is occurring in densely populated states like Pennsylvania, California, Ohio and Illinois. Small towns are now ground zero for the noise, industrial activity and environmental and health concerns associated with fossil fuel extraction.
By last year, roughly one out of 20 Americans lived within a mile of a recently fracked well. “This new proximity between wells and homes is one of the defining features of the new energy landscape,” Gold writes. And this change has happened in a minuscule amount of time—less than a decade, in most of the country—driven by technological innovation and Wall Street financing, without the corresponding changes in community awareness and the government safeguards needed to ensure fracking’s safety.
For most of his well-researched book, Gold focuses more on the history of hydraulic fracturing and the businessmen behind the boom than on its environmental impact. He’s a diligent reporter and able profiler of the mostly dull petroleum engineers and slightly more colorful energy company execs, men like the controversial Aubrey McClendon, who made their fortunes from fracking. But he never quite brings to life the impact on families and communities in the way that Seamus McGraw manages in his more personal and intimate The End of Country, published in 2011.